How Families Can Avoid Being Split Up On Airplanes

May 22, 2012

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Scott Mayerowitz of the Associated Press just wrote a story about family summer travel and how often families are split up on airplanes with individual members having to sit alone unless they pay fees to sit in preferred or premium seating (or even just to have a chance at seat selection before check-in). That could mean an extra $100 or more for a family of 4 who want to sit together, or at least near each other on the plane. What makes it worse is that airfares are on the rise for this summer and looking to be an average of 3% higher than last summer.

As an elite traveler, I have a hard time disagreeing that the best seats should be saved for the most loyal flyers or those willing to shell out. Airlines exist to make money and elite travelers make airlines a disproportionate amount of revenue and profit (A recent American Airlines executive said that 24% of their flyers make up 70% of revenue) – can you really blame them for trying to keep those lucrative flyers happy, especially since competing airlines are constantly trying to poach top flyers?

Though I can definitely imagine this must be frustrating to family travelers – especially trying to finagle seats together in a crowded and hectic gate area, where the gate agents are primarily focused on getting the flight out on time and not your in-flight comfort. If you are a family and you are unable to select seats together, I’d recommend the following things:

1) Check-in at 24 hours prior to departure. Often airlines will open up premium seats for anyone if they aren’t sold at that time.
2) Use to set seat alert notifications so if a seat opens up next to a family member (for example that passenger cancels their ticket) you will get an instant notification that it is available so you can go online and select it before anyone else. This also works for elites who want an exit row/premium seat, but they are all taken at the time of purchase.
3) Inquire at check-in at the airport to see if any seats are available. Often ticketing agents are less stressed than gate agents who are judged on getting the aircraft out on time.
4) Approach the gate agent before boarding to secure seats. Airlines generally keep the bulkheads available for passengers with disabilities or infants so if there are none, they can easily assign a family those seats. As always, friendliness (without blabbing too much and wasting their time) goes a long way.
5) Politely ask to switch on-board. Never try to force a switch – friendliness goes a long way, though you should understand if someone doesn’t want to move into your cramped middle seat (on that note, I never choose a middle seat because I’d rather gamble with a random assignment to a premium seat). The only downside to rolling the dice with a seat assignment is that you are in less of a position of power if the flight is oversold and they need to involuntarily bump people off of the flight.

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